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The Christmas Ornaments

Rick Ryckeley's picture

When I turned 6, all I wanted for Christmas was snow. We’d just moved into our new house, it was three months until Christmas, and I’d never seen the white stuff before.

A steep slope that bellied out into a long flat area, our backyard would make the perfect sled run. Magically, that winter I got my wish.

Early one morning white flakes started falling from the sky, and after a few hours, they covered the ground just enough so we could slide down the hill with a sled we made out of the giant cardboard box Mom had given us. It held together all day and most of the next before finally falling apart.

The snow was soon gone, but what I got next has lasted a lifetime: The memory of a day full of sled rides that I look back on with fondness when I reminisce about my childhood.

But there was another, more important memory that year, one of a family tradition which got its start the first Christmas we all spent together at 110 Flamingo Street. It was a tradition that was given birth by what was packaged inside that giant cardboard box.

Growing up, I remember Mom as a true artisan. The sweaters she knit kept us warm during the winter. Her many paintings adorned the walls and helped add that something special which turned our humble house into a home.

But the one hobby I remembered most was her ability to mold clay. With mounds of wet, gray clay on a spinning wheel, she could create just about anything. Ashtrays, vases, or even a sculpture, Mom could do it.

And after she fashioned the clay into its final shape, it would be placed gently into the kiln to be fired. The kiln was what was packaged inside the cardboard box we used as a sled.

Her studio was simple. It was actually one side of the garage. Right after Thanksgiving that first year, she asked each of us kids to come to the studio. She said she needed help with molding clay.

Ask any five kids if they want to get their hands into mounds of wet clay, and you’ll have a stampede of happy little feet. A stampede is exactly what happened as we all fought to be first through the door leading into the studio.

Mom had never asked for help with her clay before, so it was obvious that whatever she was making had to be special. None of us had any idea just how special the items were to become.

She had each one of us mold the clay flat, trace our right hand, and then carefully sign our name. Afterwards, she punched a hole at the wrist. Over the next week, the little hands were dried, glazed and twice fired in the kiln.

With the adventure of the snowfall and a harrowing trek into the Haunted Forest to chop down the tree for our first Christmas on Flamingo Street, we’d all but forgotten the little clay hands.

The night before Christmas, Mom called us into the living room and opened a small red and white striped box marked “Christmas Ornaments.” Inside, wrapped carefully in white tissue paper and cotton, were the ornaments she had made.

We each hung the hands on our tree with care, and each year the tradition has continued until one Christmas there was no one to retrieve the box from its special storage place.

It’s been almost 30 years since those five ornaments adorned our tree, 30 years since Dad moved away from the loss and pain. He’s now moved twice since Mom left us. And the ornaments, like many things, have been lost forever.

Often I wonder what became of them, as the memory of that first Christmas spent at 110 Flamingo Street and the joy that we had still tug at the corner of my mind each time we decorate our tree.

That is, until this year.

Last month I made a visit to my dad in Florida. He needed help cleaning out the packed attic above the garage and could no longer traverse the steep steps. It took countless trips to the Salvation Army to donate all the boxes of items that he had accumulated over a lifetime.

Finally, at 4 in the afternoon, I’d made it to the very back of the attic where I started to pull out items Dad didn’t even remember he still had. He said it was all just stuff he’d never gotten around to throwing away.

Sweat beaded off my forehead as the last plastic storage bin was pulled across the attic floor. Before I struggled with it down the steps, I removed the lid. What I found inside made me sit down and cry.

Inside was a small red and white striped box marked “Christmas Ornaments.”

[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, has been a firefighter for more than two decades and a columnist for The Citizen since 2001. His email is]

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